Sunday, October 16, 2011

Book #48 - Emma (Jane Austen)

Once again a long void has passed since my last blog post. Speculation has run rampant on the interwebs over the possible death of this slowly aging blogger...was it too much whiskey and fast driving, or did he finally hook up with Chloe Sevigny only to find that she was too much for his middle-aged heart to handle? No, the answer is none of the above...he was just slacking off, busy with work and life, and not focusing on the important things like fine rye whiskey and the greatest literature ever fucking written. And speaking of rye whiskey I'm drinking a glass of the new Bulleit rye on the rocks. I paid $20 for this bottle and it's pretty damn good. It's not Van Winkle rye, but then what else is? For $20, this is a pretty awesome value...quite drinkable and bloggable!

Anyway, where was I before I got distracted by talking about the booze? Oh yeah, I was drinking the booze. Wait no, I just finished Jane Austen's "Emma". Yes that was it. "Emma", Jane Austen. Man, things were different back in Jane's day. Aside from the lack of $20 rye whiskey (adjusted for inflation), people had manners, and society had all these classes that people had to deal with. The upper class ignored the middle classes who turned down their noses at the lower classes. At least in England. And Jane Austen is all about England.

The only other Jane Austen novel I've ever read previously was "Pride and Prejudice". I remember I read this when I first moved to San Francisco about 20 years ago. I was riding on BART (the subway) waiting in a station for a train, and reading the book when an old homeless guy came up to me and asked me what I was reading. I replied "Pride and Prejudice", and he then asked what the book was about. I told him it was about some aristocratic English sisters who were trying to marry eligible bachelors. He replied "Oh, I get it...goldiggers!"

In "Emma" the title character Emma Woodhouse decidedly does NOT want to get married at the novel's outset. Emma is 21 years old, and "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition". She lives with her father, who is perhaps one of the funniest characters I've come across recently. He's the quintessential English eccentric. He hates change of any kind, and when his oldest daughter (Emma's sister) and Emma's governess both get married and move out of the house he's convinced they've ruined their (and his) lives. Emma loves her father dearly, and wants to protect him, and as a result she has determined that she will never get married. Emma is smart, opinionated, and often wrong in her interpretations about other people.

At the novel's opening, Emma's best friend is Harriet Smith, a middle class girl, daughter of a tradesman, whom Emma takes it upon herself to marry into upper class society. Harriet has an offer to marry a local farmer, but Emma convinces her that this just won't do, and then tries to set up Harriet with the local clergyman. She fails miserably when the clergyman first asks Emma to marry him, and then goes and marries someone else. This is typical of Emma at the novel's outset...she has good intentions, but she doesn't read people that well, and often ends up in misguided interactions with others. Later on in the novel she ends up screwing over Harriet again by trying to fix her up with Mr. Knightley, only to find out that he is in love with Emma. Poor Harriet.

And who is this Mr. Knightley? He's the brother of the man who married Emma's older sister. He's also one of Emma's best friends, and has known her since she was little (he's older than her). He's the model of common sense and good judgement, and for the most part is very good at understanding people and their motivations and their character. He serves as a guide and mentor to Emma, and admonishes her when she's thoughtless or mistaken. She doesn't always appreciate this right away, but in the end Knightley always seems to be right. Of course, in the end Knightley marries Emma, after he confesses he's always been in love with her. I suppose this is a case of the times changing, but for me it's a little creepy that an older man who watches someone grow up would then fall in love with her. But hey, Emma is smart and hot, and I'm sure the pickings of women among the local landed gentry in England was not so big.

There are other characters in the book who are central to the novel's romantic intrigues, mistakes, and schemings. Frank Churchill is the son of the husband of Emma's former governess, who has recently come back into the community after being raised by an aunt and uncle. Frank is somewhat of a snake...he's very charming and dashing, and always seems to have the right word for everyone. At first I thought he was going to turn out to be some kind of grifter, but that never comes to pass. Everyone is taken in by him, except for Knightley, who sees through him and doesn't like him at all. We eventually learn that Frank is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, another main character. Jane is a smart woman, and an incredibly talented pianist, but she is very reserved and so Emma doesn't really like her at first, thinking that she is aloof. However, we eventually learn about the secret engagement between her and Frank, and we come to feel for both of them a bit, because they've had to suffer by hiding their love (there's a legitimate reason why they had to hide their love away for most of the book, so it's not just whim).

This all leads to what I think is the great talent of Jane Austen...she has a real mastery of character and human behavior. Her characters are so very life-like...their motivations are as clear and as screwed up as people in real life, and I think this is one big reason why she has stayed in the canon. Her characters are just so damn plausible, and human. And she makes us realize that despite the very different world these characters live in from our own, people are people and their foibles are no different now than they were 200 years ago in the English countryside.

Having made that last point, though, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the novel's end. Emma marries Mr. Knightley, and a spark seems to have gone out of her. Where is that tempestuous girl who vowed she would never marry? She and Mr. Knightley also decide to live with her father, so he doesn't get upset about losing the last female household member (Dad even balks at this at first, but he likes Knightley and eventually is able to be convinced of the advantage in this situation). And she and Knightley aren't the only ones to get married...everything is tied up in a neat little package of marriages and everyone presumably lives happily ever after. Maybe it's just me but after such a rich landscape of the misguided behaviors and human error, to have it all tied up in such an almost fairy-tale ending seems a bit less than satisfying. Still, I'll let that go because the rest of the book IS so damn satisfying. I'm definitely happy I have more Jane Austen on my list.


Sarah said...

Great review, neatly summing up the plot and judging the characters fairly (for the most part)!

I'm not sure the spark goes out of Emma - we don't know what she is like after she marries, but judging by the playful banter she and Knightley share, neither look set to back down without a fight on matters they disagree upon (which will probably be many!) Emma marries because she loves Mr Knightley and wants to marry him, not because she has been beaten into submission. I don't find the age difference at all 'creepy' - they know each other very well, and are equals in life.

Oh, and it's Frank Churchill, not Sullivan, but apart from that ... ;)

Robby Virus said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, I will change Sullivan to Churchill...not sure what I was thinking!

David Steakley said...

Emma is not Jane's strongest effort. Rather depressing, foreshadowing Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, a bit. But it does give a practical appraisal of the matrimonial stakes, and the highly variable outcomes attached to good and bad choices.

Robby Virus said...

I never thought of that before, but "House of Mirth" is indeed like a very dark version of a Jane Austen novel. Very dark.

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Viktoria said...

Hi Robby, it´s been a while since I read your blogg, but I just found it again and I have to comment on this old post just to tell you that the British crime-writer Reginald Hill (of Dalziel&Pascoe-fame) has written a short story titled "poor Emma" where we get to meet the Knightlys some twenty years on. The story is in a volume titled "There are no ghosts in the Soviet union".

Spoiler: Knightly has turned into a philandering bastard and Emma murders him and gets away with it! Very, very amusing. And actually rather believable!